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Sunday, September 20, 2020

Sexual assault survivors say Western, community should do more

Madison, a Western student and survivor. // Photo by Taylor Nichols

By Asia Fields and Melissa McCarthy

Content warning: This story contains descriptions of sexual assault.

Eight survivors of sexual assault who are current or former Western students say the university needs to better address sexual assault and support survivors.

These survivors said Western should better educate students on consent, more publicly stand against sexual assault and listen to survivors. They said their stories are part of a larger issue in our society that needs to be addressed.

The survivors responded to a call for stories from The Western Front winter quarter. Six of the survivors were sexually assaulted while they were Western students. One was sexually assaulted while in high school. One did not specify.

Only one of the survivors, Tia Petrini, went through the university’s reporting and investigation process, and did so before Western made changes to how cases were investigated in 2016.

Three survivors told the Front they didn’t report at all, because they heard others had bad experiences, didn’t know what resources were available or didn’t recognize what happened to them was rape. Two survivors shared their frustrations with reporting to law enforcement.

The Front does not name survivors without their permission. In this story, the Front uses what survivors prefer, whether that is first name only or anonymity. Identifiable information has been removed from anonymous responses, so as to protect survivors’ identities.

Sexual assault at Western

Madison, a current student and survivor, said more needs to be done at Western to show how prevalent sexual assault is.

“Many people have the opinion that survivors are being dramatic, or that the stories we have are not common,” she said. “No. We are everywhere, and we need to work together to take action to end sexual violence [and] assault.”

Consultation and Sexual Assault Services Coordinator Michelle Langstraat said while more and more students are seeking services from CASAS, they still face difficulty getting information out to the student body, and she suspects many survivors are still not utilizing their services.

“Whatever it is, we know one out of five identified females in college is [sexually] assaulted, and our numbers don’t reflect that,” Langstraat said.

The rate is one in 20 for undergraduate men, according to a 2015 survey by the Association of American Universities.

The study found LGBTQ+ students and students with disabilities face significantly higher rates of sexual assault.

Experts say underreporting of sexual assault is common, making the scope of the problem difficult to determine.

Madison said she wishes there were more opportunities for survivors to come together and share their stories. She said CASAS has been extremely helpful, but she hasn’t been able to attend its support group due to a class conflict.

Madison said she’s proud of the student advocacy and efforts to raise awareness about sexual assault on campus, but wants to see Western continue to better support survivors.

Paul Cocke, director of communications and marketing, listed a number of actions taken by the administration in opposition to sexual assault.

He said administrators receive training on being trauma-informed and the Title IX coordinator periodically sends emails to campus about Western’s commitment to preventing and responding to sexual violence. Cocke said the Equal Opportunity Office has run ads or columns in the Front in the past year.

Cocke also said posters and resource cards from the Title IX coordinator about reporting options and resources are available around campus. He said Prevention and Wellness Services peer advocates provide educational programs and events about prevention.

But all of the survivors said there is more Western can do.

Survivors’ responses included that they didn’t feel believed, professors were not accommodating, they wanted more education on consent and they were frustrated with the readmission of students found responsible of sexual misconduct.

Western has been under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education since 2015 for its handling of sexual misconduct cases.

In fall 2016, the Front reported that survivors said the Office of Student Life’s sexual misconduct investigations lacked sensitivity and that mild punishments were given.

Sexual assault investigations were moved that quarter to the Equal Opportunity Office, although the Office of Student Life is still in charge of determining sanctions for students.

Karen Burke, executive director of Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Services of Whatcom County, has worked with survivors at the organization for 11 years.

“The response on campus is not meeting survivors’ needs, that’s what survivors are telling us. And the process off campus isn’t meeting their needs either. I think that we all need to challenge ourselves to do better and we can still uphold our roles while supporting survivors,” she said. “We need to listen to them. They tell us it’s not good. If that process feels traumatizing and unsupportive, I think it’s up to us to make that better.”

How can Western improve?

Survivors call for more education, training

One alumna said in her second month at Western, a man she thought was her friend raped her.

She said she was at an off-campus party full of Western students. Her suitemates were with her and knew how drunk she was, but no one intervened, she said.

She was blacked out for parts of the assault and in the moments she was conscious, she felt no control over her body, she said.

“It was like one of those nightmares you have where you feel terrified and all you want to do is scream and jump out of bed, but you are frozen in place,” she wrote.

After, she blamed herself and locked away the memory of what had happened.

Looking back, she wishes she and her suitemates had known it was not possible to give consent while under the influence.

“When entering college, I had no clue that college campuses were a war zone for women’s bodies and that being raped was something I needed to fear,” she said. “It took me over three years to come to the realization that I was raped that night and to understand that it was not my fault.”

It wasn’t until she was in a women’s studies class and learned about rape culture and consent that she stopped blaming herself.

Rape culture describes societal attitudes that normalize or trivialize sexual violence.

When I learned this information, I felt shaken to my core. This secret had been wreaking havoc over my life for years and if I had only known some simple pieces of information, it could have potentially changed everything,” she said.

If she had known what had happened was rape, she said she might have reported.

“When entering college, I had no clue that college campuses were a war zone for women’s bodies and that being raped was something I needed to fear.”

Western alumna and survivor

She said she wished Western had a mandatory class on consent, meetings about sexual assault with resident advisors or educational campaigns.

Another survivor also said Western should educate on consent and strategies to combat toxic masculinity.

Since these two survivors graduated, Western began requiring an online sexual violence prevention and response training, Haven, in 2015 for all new students, faculty and staff. Faculty and staff also take sexual harassment training, which includes discussion of supporting survivors, every two years, Cocke said.

Cocke said data from Haven’s parent company and feedback from Western students show it is effective at providing information about consent and bystander intervention, but recognized the limits of the training.

“No single training will stop sexual violence,” Cocke said.

Students who have been at Western since Haven was implemented say it’s not enough.

One survivor said while the Haven training was informative, she’s seen many men who understand the concept of consent but exhibit coercive and violent behavior anyway.

Madison said the training needs to be repeated.

The Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women recommended colleges have multiple connected prevention strategies that allow students to have exposure to material more than once.

President Sabah Randhawa said administrators are looking into providing Haven training multiple times for students, faculty and staff, in a May 31 interview with the AS Review.

Madison also said the training should be in person.

“An online module set is not enough,” she said. “If the issue is still present on campus, action still needs to be taken.”

Preventative measures that create positive interactions between participants and their peers or other adults are linked to better outcomes, studies show.

Cocke said in-person training for students was considered, but Haven was chosen as a cost-effective option to best ensure participation. Cocke also said there are in-person trainings for student athletes and resident advisors.

Haven is Western’s first step in the development of an ongoing, comprehensive, campus-wide, sexual violence prevention campaign,” Cocke said.

Survivors say some professors not accommodating

Madison was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress, anxiety and depression, which created academic difficulties for her.

“I try to grow, but it’s trauma,” Madison said. “In times of high stress, like finals and tests, it all comes back.”

Madison worked with CASAS, which can help survivors obtain academic support, among other services and accommodations.

CASAS sent emails to Madison’s professors about providing her with accommodations. Madison said some professors were not as responsive as others.

A survivor who is graduating in June said Western needs to train professors on how to work with students who have post traumatic stress. She said she had a lot of support from CASAS advocates and some professors, but that others lacked the same level of care.

“I had professors doubt the extent of what I was enduring, leading to stunted progress in my education,” she said.

Schools are federally required to provide accommodations and protective measures to survivors if they request them and are reasonably available.

Cocke said the majority of times when CASAS has reached out to faculty, they have been willing to assist students.

“However, CASAS staff can only reach out to the faculty member about the needs of their student,” Cocke said. “They cannot control the response of individual faculty, or ensure that all faculty member will be open and supportive of the request.”

Cocke said CASAS is working to increase faculty awareness and sensitivity to how sexual violence impacts survivors. CASAS emails professors each quarter offering to give a brief informational presentation to their class or present on sexual violence prevention, which can be tailored to the course, Cocke said.

Langstraat said seven faculty members did this winter 2017.

Survivors react to readmission of perpetrators

When asked what they would like to see Western do differently, two survivors said they did not want Western to readmit students found responsible for sexual assault.

The Western Front and AS Review have reported on two students who were readmitted after being suspended for sexual misconduct, Connor Patrick Griesemer and Peter Jacob Lagow. Griesemer was also convicted of sexual assault.

One survivor, who told the Front they were sexually assaulted in high school, said Western readmitting Griesemer shows it prioritizes the education of a rapist over survivors’ safety and ability to access education.

“As someone who shares a similar experience with that survivor, I wish that [Western] actually thought about how many other people would have been impacted by their choice to reenroll Connor Patrick Griesemer,” the survivor said. “So many other survivors agreed that they felt unsafe knowing that a dangerous person was allowed to come back on our campus.”

Because the university does not release the names of students found responsible for sexual assault, despite a federal privacy law exemption allowing it to do so, it is not possible to know how many times this has happened.

No students previously suspended for rape, sexual assault or sexual misconduct were registered for winter or spring 2018, or are registered for summer and fall, Cocke said. He said safety issues are considered before sanctions or conditions for readmission are decided on.

Randhawa told the AS Review he was having the internal auditor look at how Western has handled cases of sexual assault. He is also discussing approaches to discipline with administrators, he said.

How Western can address rape culture

Stacey Hust, an associate professor of communication at Washington State University, studies the media and sexual assault-related attitudes and beliefs.

Hust said universities can address rape culture by creating an environment that supports survivors and questions and interrupts rape culture.

“At a lot of universities, it’s about just starting the conversation,” she said.

She said it’s important that universities make sure their communication does not promote rape culture, and that there should be messages against sexual assault coming from the top as well.

“It is a campus-wide environment that has to be created from the top to the bottom, from the bottom to the top,” she said. “The entire campus environment needs to be supportive of sexual assault survivors and of not tolerating sexual assault.”

She said the community can prevent sexual assault in a variety of ways, whether it is events or activities, communicating that rape culture is not permitted, increasing bystander intervention or interrupting language that perpetuates rape culture.

Hust said having conversations around the issue is important, as it takes acknowledgment to lead to reduction.

Frustrations with other systems

Madison, a Western student and sexual assault survivor. // Photo by Taylor Nichols
Madison, a Western student and sexual assault survivor. // Photo by Taylor Nichols

Madison was back home last summer when a man raped her multiple times, she said.

She said her friend who was there did nothing to stop it, despite knowing what was happening.

Madison’s mom was also sexually assaulted while in college.

“What happened to me was over 25 years ago, but the scars are still there,” Madison’s mom said in an email. “What happened to my daughter this past summer has irrevocably changed our lives. The fact that someone hurt me is one thing, but the pain of someone hurting my daughter hurts even more.”

Madison’s mom never reported the person who assaulted her and encouraged Madison to, but made clear it was her choice.

Five days after the assault, Madison and her mom went to a hospital to get a medical inspection. She said, at first, the doctors and nurses were nice and sympathetic, but their compassion quickly seemed to dwindle.

“It became an evidence-collecting session,” Madison said. “They forget that you’re a human with feeling and emotions.”

Here in Whatcom County, DVSAS advocates respond 24-hours-a-day to forensic sexual assault exams at the hospital. Advocates can support survivors through the process and help communicate with hospital staff, law enforcement, family and friends.

After the medical inspection, Madison filed a report.

Eight months later, despite repeated attempts to connect with law enforcement for updates on her case, she had received no response.

Madison said she finally received a return call on March 15 from Pierce County Detective Sergeant Tara Simmelink. She informed Madison that no detective was or would be assigned to her case.

The six detectives in the Pierce County special assault unit work on cases related to sexual assault and child and elder abuse, Simmelink told the Front. She said she gets anywhere from 60 to 100 reports a week and, due to the volume, cannot contact every person who reported.

“I think that’s sad and very unfortunate due to the nature of what we are investigating,” she said. “Every case is important, but unfortunately sometimes we have to prioritize cases.”

Simmelink said her office has to make difficult decisions about which cases to prioritize if there are other crimes going on at the time, like shootings or homicides.

“We are always asking for more staffing,” she said. “These kinds of things, I think, come down to budgets and having to operate within that. We just don’t have the staffing.”

Simmelink said the difficulty of proving consent is one factor that makes it hard to take on sexual assault cases. She said detectives work closely with the prosecutor’s office, which also faces understaffing, on what kinds of cases could result in charges or potentially go to trial.

Madison said Simmelink told her she didn’t think the evidence was strong enough to proceed with the case and that the decision was made when Madison filed the report in July.

“I had been waiting all this time with hope, and there is no hope for my case,” Madison said. “The justice system failed me. There is no justice.”

Out of every 1,000 rapes, only 11 are referred to prosecutors and seven end in a felony conviction, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network.

“It’s hard to prove and with the justice system, there has to be proof,” Burke said. “When I’m working with survivors, I try to dismantle their sense of justice from the justice system. So they may or may not find that person guilty if they report, but that doesn’t mean the crime didn’t happen.”

When a survivor chooses to pursue legal options, DVSAS can provide information, help survivors obtain no contact or civil protection orders, and advocate to the prosecuting attorney.

“I had been waiting all this time with hope, and there is no hope for my case. The justice system failed me. There is no justice.”

Madison, Western student and survivor

Based on her own experience with the justice system, Madison said she understands why so many people don’t report sexual assault.

“It’s such a painful process, but it’s so highly encouraged,” Madison said. “But in the end, you’re left on a desk with all the other girls.”

Burke said other survivors sometimes feel this way.

“It’s a bit universal the survivors have difficulty when reporting to law enforcement and then through the process of prosecution,” she said. “I don’t think that’s because any individual necessarily is not believed. I think the system is set up in a way that feels really discrediting for survivors.”

One survivor told the Front she decided to drop her case after reporting to Bellingham Police Department.

“It was torture to have to rehash my biggest tragedy again and again, and to have the truth be analyzed like a side to a story. It was just too much to bear,” she said. “I was handled like I had also committed a crime, and therefore gave up in this regard.”

Bellingham Police Department officers try to go out of their way to support survivors, Lieutenant Danette Beckley said. She said they work closely with DVSAS and the prosecutor’s office, and that for criminal cases, officers need to get all of the information possible.

“We understand that the questions are sensitive and personal. We do our best to mitigate any further discomfort or trauma,” Beckley said. “We try to give the why behind a question, to minimize a victim wondering why we ‘had to ask that question.’”

Empowering survivors, dismantling rape culture

Four of the eight survivors said sexual assault needs to be addressed at a societal level.

One said in 2016, during her first year at Western, a man raped her.

“It is a pain and a trauma that I never knew possible,” she said.

She has struggled with post traumatic stress since, and she has had to learn not to blame herself.

“I know now that it isn’t me, but the societal environment that fosters rape culture that stained my first year, and consequently the rest of my life,” she said.

Madison said more education about sexual assault is necessary to create a cultural shift around how it is understood.

She said the topic of sexual assault is often dismissed or silenced, as it is still considered taboo.

“Why is hiding it and faking like everything is OK the right thing to do? Why are people expected not to show their emotions?” Madison said. “If my dog died, I’d be able to talk about it. If my mom died, I’d be able to talk about. But it’s like a part of me died, and I’m expected not to talk about it.”

Madison said action needs to be taken to educate people about consent earlier on, as well as how to be respectful and consensual in their daily lives.

Studies show prevention efforts are most effective when introduced to students at a young age, as sexually violent behavior begins in adolescence.

Madison’s mom echoed that this is a cultural issue, not an individual one.

“I feel this is a societal problem, where this is far too commonplace,” she said. “I support the victims and their bravery for sharing their traumatic stories, but they shouldn’t have to. This shouldn’t be about victims struggling to find a voice. This should be about people not hurting others. It should be about human decency, and respect.”

One survivor said the #MeToo movement may be able to create a societal change.

“[The] omnipresence of rape culture almost took me down with it. I hope that the #MeToo movement and the growing rise of empowerment within women will not only change this, but also change how survivors are received, and how [post traumatic stress] is understood,“ she said.

Another survivor now works with an organization that supports survivors.

“I have been supporting women who have gone through the exact same thing as me in their journey of healing. I have helped to empower them. I have held their hands through invasive sexual assault exams. I have stood next to them in a courtroom where their abuser was sitting four feet away. I have devoted my professional life to making sure women do not feel the way I felt for so many years,” she said.

But she said despite helping others, she is still not kind to herself. She hasn’t told many people what happened to her, and while she now knows what happened is not her fault, she still feels shame.

“I think it speaks volumes about the trauma of sexual assault and the stigma around it that I spend the majority of my week working to empower survivors and provide them with support and knowledge, but I, a survivor of sexual assault, cannot empower myself,” she said.

She said sharing her story was a step toward empowerment, but that she is not ready to share her name.

“I hope one day I can stop feeling like a piece of me is still dirty and unworthy and bloom in to a beautiful, empowered woman,” she said. “A woman who is not afraid to put her name at the end of her story in fear of being recognized. I damn well deserve that peace.”

Want to share your own story?

Confidential resources

CASAS

Academic, housing and parking accommodations; protection and no-contact orders; financial assistance; weekly support groups; referrals to other services.

360-650-3700

Old Main 585

Student Health Center

Same-day appointments for STI screenings and pregnancy tests; sexual assault forensic exams. May provide testing and necessary medication at no cost to sexual assault survivors.

360-650-3400

Campus Services, second floor

Counseling Center

Counseling services; same day urgent appointments between 1 and 4 p.m. Monday through Friday.

360-650-3164

Old Main 540

DVSAS (off campus)

Prevention education; coordinating with law enforcement and health care providers; housing accommodations; and other support services.

360-715-1563

1407 Commercial St.

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